The Bible calls Christians to make peace — to be peacemakers. It means we’re called to the uncomfortable ministry of entering ourselves into the conflicts of others. So when do we enter into a situation? It’s the question from a listener named Ryan.
“Hello, Pastor John, I just want to thank you so much for this podcast. It and many of the resources at desiringGod.org have become a very important part of my Christian growth. My question for you is, when if ever, should we intervene in the divisions between two people in our church. If we see two Christians who do not appear to be seeking a better relationship and only continue to distance themselves from each other, is there a point that it becomes necessary for other Christians to intervene? And at what point? I have been praying for the two individuals I am thinking of, but are there any further actions laid out in the Bible? How have you done this yourself?”
I was talking to a friend just last night about how good it is when our adult children come home with their families for Thanksgiving or Christmas or just to visit. We were observing that sometimes there are tensions or differences that have come between us, and we have to let those adult children be their own people and be glad if they’re willing to come home and be with us and be civil and gracious.
“We are not merely to walk in the light, but we are to help others walk in the light as well. That’s the way love thinks.”
My friend said he knew one family that for generations seemed to handle all their disagreements and frustrations by long periods of silence and ostracism and estrangement. In other words, instead of finding some way to get along in spite of past hurts and present frustrations or political or religious differences, they just didn’t talk to each other for decades.
One father would exclude a child from any communication for years. A sister wouldn’t talk to a brother for years. A father wouldn’t let the family go to a mother-in-law’s house for years. He observed that this was simply the way they had learned to deal with conflict, and so it went on from generation to generation.
Now, the reason I begin with that anecdote is simply to illustrate that we probably should take into account, when trying to help someone be reconciled to another, lots of different factors that may make it harder for them to get reconciled than it may seem to us. We should be ready to have significant, deeper, extended conversations that may be difficult about the causes of the alienation other than the ones that may appear on the surface.
Idle, Fainthearted, Weak
There’s a passage in 1 Thessalonians 5:14 that shaped the way I have thought pastorally about such situations. It goes like this: “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”
Now what’s striking to me in that verse is that Paul does not say, “Do what you have to do with church discipline so that there aren’t any more idlers and fainthearted and weak people in this church, but only productive people and lionhearted people.”
In other words, the way Paul’s exhortation is given inclines me to think they’re always going to be there. There are always going to be weak people and fainthearted people and idle people who struggle with all kinds of stuff, and he’s warning us against thinking perfectionistically about an all-or-nothing solution.
Let me try to answer the question directly. Here’s what the question was: “My question for you is when, if ever, should we intervene in the divisions between two people in our church.”
“We should intervene. But when and how we intervene is dependent on a handful of things.”
My answer is that we should intervene. But when and how we intervene is dependent on a handful of things: (1) How serious is the division? (2) How long has it been going on? (3) How mature are the people involved? (4) How close is your relationship with them? (5) Who else is involved? And so on.
In other words, great wisdom is required for strategies of ministry to other people. But the reason I say, “Yes, we should intervene,” is because of texts in the Bible like the following three.
Galatians 6:1 reads, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression” — like being unforgiving toward a friend or something like that — “you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch over yourself, lest you too be tempted.”
James 5:19–20 says, “Brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
Matthew 6:14 states, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
A Serious Issue
So, it seems to me pretty clear that in Christ we are indeed our brother’s keeper. Our goal is not merely to save ourselves but to save others as well. We are not merely to walk in the light, but we are to help others walk in the light as well.
That’s the way love thinks. That’s the way love acts. You can see from the passage in James and the passage in Matthew what’s at stake in some of these relationships is our very salvation.
“In Christ we are indeed our brother’s keeper. Our goal is not merely to save ourselves but to save others as well.”
I remember being in a small group when I was in seminary with a young woman who said (and this blew me away), “I’ll never forgive my mother for what she did.” We’re Christians. We’re Christians in this group. I looked at her kind of baffled, and I quoted to her that text from Matthew 6: if you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven. She was very indignant that I would use that text in her case, but that’s how serious it seemed to me.
I think that’s how serious it is. So not to step in if somebody is holding a grudge in a way that Jesus said will destroy you would be a kind of unloving timidity.
Here’s a closing exhortation:
Pray earnestly for wisdom; search the Scriptures; don’t become a gossip about these other people, talking about them for a long time before you actually speak to them.
Develop a relationship of trust with them if you can, and then approach the issue with questions in an attempt to learn about what’s going on before you instruct. It will help you to know how to give guidance if you know the facts and if you discern the true state of their hearts.
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